Not much slips past Ryan Day.
The Buckeye head coach has seen his team either at or near the top of a number of preseason lists heading into this summer, whether based on analytics or more subjective measures. Typically that would be a positive indicator for a particular program before a new season, but Day has a different outlook on the matter.
He would prefer Ohio State to have a chip on its shoulder as the new slate approaches, and not to be showered with praise before it has even earned it. There’s little doubt this mindset was shaped by the outcome of this past year, when the Buckeyes stopped short of attaining several of their most important goals.
“The last thing we want to see is our ourselves at the top of anything, because you have to come in and want to prove yourself every day. If you don't have the mentality that you're going to prove yourself on the field every single week with competitive stamina, it doesn't work,” Day told 97.1 The Fan on Wednesday morning. “And so these guys are still 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old guys who are still figuring out the game. Now I think as you get to midseason and towards the end of the season, I think maybe some more of those analytics come into play. But our roster and everybody's roster turns over so much year to year in the college game now more than ever with the portal and things that are going on. I think going into a season, it's hard to predict much.”
In ESPN’s most recent SP+ rankings, a predictive tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency, the Buckeyes come out at No. 1, with Alabama and Georgia – the winners of the past two national championships – slotting in at second and third. In terms of its offensive rating alone, Ohio State is as far out ahead of Alabama as the Crimson Tide is ahead of the 14th-ranked team on the list.
Day’s reputation for running some of the nation’s most explosive offenses has been proven time and time again since he joined the Buckeyes in 2017. But this season, the aforementioned rating has plenty to do with the return of Heisman Trophy finalist and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year C.J. Stroud, who will also have the early Biletnikoff Award frontrunner at his disposal in Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Few are expecting anything but excellence from Stroud, who has a chance to state his case to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft. But Day knows expectations don’t simply materialize into reality. Despite all the success he had as a redshirt freshman, tossing 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns to just six interceptions, Day hopes Stroud still feels like he has something to prove, too.
Asked an evaluator at the Ohio State pro day who looked good.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 23, 2022
"The QB! He's amazing."
That QB is CJ Stroud. He's 2023 draft eligible.
“Just because he did it last year doesn't mean it's just gonna happen this year. If anything else, he’s got a bull's-eye on his chest,” Day said. “So he's gonna have to bring it right from the jump, and there's a lot that comes with that. A lot of it has to do with leadership and the guys that are around him, and it's got to take everybody on that offense.
“We've got to be able to establish the run and run the football, to have balance and especially win big games but you know, I think for him it's just there's so much nowadays and social media and the media and just all the things that come at these guys. He's doing a great job, by the way, of just really keeping the main thing the main thing and focusing on the little things or staying disciplined and knowing again that he's gotta prove himself every week.”
Beyond the players themselves, Ohio State’s new assistant coaches have plenty to prove in their own right. With Justin Frye coming aboard on offense and Jim Knowles, Tim Walton and Perry Eliano all joining the Ohio State defense, most of them have not been asked to produce at quite this level of college football, and hardly with this slim a margin for error.
That’s a fact Day is acutely aware of, even if the early returns on the new additions to his staff have been promising.
“I’ve been pleased so far. I mean, it’s a good start, but we'll find out more in that first game,” Day said. “Guys, when they come in new, they’re drinking through a fire hose and then they go right on the road recruiting, so there’s a lot. And Ohio State’s different than all the places that these guys have been. But they’re all very intelligent, very bright. I think we have a very, very good staff. And I think this is a chance to play our best football as we get to September.”
Day doesn’t know exactly what his team is capable of just yet, but he does know the standards that constitute a successful season at Ohio State. The requisite talent is already in place on the field, but in order for the Buckeyes to reach their goals in 2022, they’ll have to prove those preseason lists right behind the scenes before the season even begins.
“The good news is we have a lot of our team back so I think that that's good, you can project a little bit, but we won't know what kind of team we have until we get into September and October. But the hard thing around here is we can't wait that long,” Day said. “We've got to push the pedal to the metal right here and preseason camp and even now, because we don't have any ability to trip up at all. We've gotta start right from the get-go, build as the season goes on, and then play our best football at the end of the season. And it gets really important.
“So we look at those analytics, but at the end of the day, it's about how do you bring it every week at a high level and I think that's going to be the focus more than anything else.”